The problem is earlier than you think
I’m not only a productivity coach—I’m also a composer.
Sometimes, when I’m writing music, I get stuck. The music stops flowing. I don’t know what comes next. When that happens, my instinct is to fish for a solution by trying different possible continuations. "The trumpets haven't played in a while, maybe there’s a fanfare here?”
But that’s wrongheaded, and not only because, as my composition professor once said, “just because the trumpets haven’t played in a while isn’t a good enough reason for them to play now.”
It’s wrongheaded because I’m fishing for the problem in the wrong location.
I learned many years ago that if I get stuck in a composition, the actual problem was 20 or 30 bars before where I am now. And if I want to get unstuck, I need to go back to the last spot I'm sure of, get rid of everything from that point forward, and reassess from there. I might save the deleted measures in case there's something salvageable, but I get them out of the working score.
This concept transcends composing music. Whenever we get stuck and our productivity stalls—when we hesitate, or avoid work, or freeze because there’s too much to do—the real problem happened earlier. The real problem happened when we failed to build a bridge.
What starter motors and valleys have in common
When you start a car (one with a gas engine), turning the key in the ignition doesn’t directly turn the engine over. There’s a smaller starter motor that engages first, and it provides the necessary energy to get the main engine firing. It takes more energy to start the engine than it does to run the engine.
The same is true of every one of our productivity system components. It takes a lot more energy to start up work on a specific project than it does to maintain that work. It takes more energy to start a day than it does to continue it. It takes more energy to start a new week than it does to continue into Tuesday. (The expression “a case of the Mondays” didn’t come from nowhere.)
Every move from one day to the next, or one work session to the next, is like passing through a deep valley between two hills. Each time we leave work we descend into the valley, and it requires so much effort to pick the work back up by climbing the other side.
Our goal is to avoid as much of that valley as possible.
💡 Bridge to the Middle 💡
👆 That's your weekend upgrade.
For years I’ve used the expression “Always be in the middle.” The concept is this: Before I leave a work session, I take a moment to define what I’m going to do next and attach the relevant resources and materials to that task. I “Bridge to the Middle” of the next work session.
Likewise, before I leave today, I take a few minutes to lay out an Agenda for tomorrow. I “Bridge to the Middle” of the coming day.
Before I leave a project, if there is any work I can reuse in the future, I build a template with that reusable work. That way, next time, I’m 50, 70, 90% done with that work before I even start. I “Bridge to the Middle” of that next project.
Bridging your cycles
In Weekend Upgrade 30, I described productivity systems as a series of cycles. I've updated my terminology since then, but the concept remains the same. Every work session has four phases: Intention, Action, Feedback, and Reflection. "What am I going to work on?”, Do the work, “How did that go?", “What can I learn from that to improve future intentions?”.
Those same four phases exist at the daily level, too. Intention—create an Agenda. Action—follow the Agenda through the day (adapting and adjusting as needed). Feedback—what got done, what didn’t. Reflection—how does that affect my intentions for tomorrow.
And the weekly, monthly, quarterly, etc., levels all have Intention, Action, Feedback, and Reflection in their cycles too.
The goal with a bridge is to bridge as far into Action from as early in the cycle as possible. The higher the bridge sits in the valley, the less energy we waste on transitions and distractions.
Never start from scratch
Essentially, our goal is to never start from scratch—at least, not in the Action phase of a work cycle. When it’s time to get work done, I don’t want to have to scramble out of a valley before I can even start.
Let’s look at three bridge types and how they help us never start from scratch.
Good: Bridge from Intention deep into Action
Let’s imagine I’m planning my Agenda for tomorrow. I add a task to Create a Daily Activator video for my free Action-Powered Productivity community.
To build the bridge, I could decide what I want that video to be about, and include a few notes about what I want to say. That way, when it’s time to film, I’m not starting from scratch and I’m much more likely to get that video done.
This bridge is from Intention into Action. While planning, I add any relevant information that makes a task easier to start. This is good—but we can do even better!
Better: Bridge from previous Action deep into next Action
Let’s imagine the same Daily Activator scenario, except instead of waiting until Agenda-planning, I take two minutes after recording today’s video to plan what I want tomorrow’s video to be about.
This works better, because I’m still in the “Daily Activator mindset” while I’m building the bridge (i.e., I’ve descended less into the valley). It’s easier to create a few notes for tomorrow’s video because I’ve just created today’s video and the process and content are fresh in my mind.
This bridge is from Action to Action. When I complete a task, and I’m still in that mindset, I build the bridge by deciding what I’m doing next and how I’m doing it. This is often the best we can do—but there is a slightly better approach for work we do regularly.
Best: Bridge from your system deep into Action
Same example, except this time, I have a Daily Activator Dashboard where my past and future ideas are managed, and I have two recurring tasks: a daily one to film the video and a weekly one to generate new ideas. Both of those recurring tasks include a link to the Dashboard.
Now, my bridge is from the top of one hill to the top of the next hill. I'm never fishing for what to do, I'm never expending energy just getting started. And—critically—I'm still empowered to change my mind and record something else if I want to. It's my Dashboard, after all! It builds the bridge, but because I'm not wasting energy down and up those hills, I'm more capable of deviating from the plan should that be necessary.
How can Tana help?
It is difficult to build these kinds of bridges in traditional task apps, because building bridges requires notes, files, links, and other content to simplify your next startup. Task apps generally don’t have robust functions for attaching that kind of information.
You can build effective bridges using any Tool for Thought, but for my approach, the best tool for bridge building is Tana. If I’m building a “good” bridge from Intention into Action, I can add links—internal or external—to make it easier to get into that work. A “better” bridge from Action into Action is easier, too, because I can include a reference to the previous Action in the next Action. Quick, simple bridge.
Tana shines most, though, with those “best” system-level bridges. I can create dashboards, templates, recurring tasks, and all manner of “bridge materials” to ensure I avoid the energy drain of climbing that hill into work.
If you would like to build better bridges in Tana, try out my Tana for Tasks 2 (T4T2) template for task and project management. it just released last week and so far the response has been positive. It's gratifying to know people are getting work done in Tana because T4T2 makes it easier.
I am not aware of any other tool that facilitates bridges as smoothly as Tana does, especially when combined with my T4T2 template. Tana allows you to customize workflows to your precise needs, without locking you into anything. Tana is flexible and powerful—you can “lock in” workflows, but still easily adapt and update them as needed.
What do I do next?
(1) Take 2 minutes and answer this question: What’s one thing I learned in this newsletter that I can put into practice right away?
By committing to a specific action, you make it much more likely you’ll do it.
(2) This weekend, audit your workflows for missing bridges.
What work is being done inefficiently—or not at all—because you aren't taking earlier time to Bridge to the middle of Action later?
If this was valuable for you:
Share the newsletter with someone you think would also get value from it! https://rjn.st/weekend-upgrade-newsletters
Until next time, friends:
A little time spent building a bridge saves you loads of time and effort—every single time you cross it.